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Open up the debates!

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Photo - Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein delivers her acceptance speech at the Green Party's convention in Baltimore on Saturday, July 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Laura-Chase McGehee)
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein delivers her acceptance speech at the Green Party's convention in Baltimore on Saturday, July 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Laura-Chase McGehee)

Tomorrow night brings the first presidential debate, and with it, new debate drinking games. Politico and Vanity Fair already have some suggestions, as do the proprietors of debatedrinking.com.

"I drink to make other people interesting," proclaimed George Jean Nathan, H.L. Mencken's literary partner in crime. That sentiment helps explain why self-medication has become almost essential to these exercises in American civic life.

So stock up on the hard stuff: The "zinger" shootout tomorrow in Denver promises to be the same old stale, stage-managed affair. That's the way the Demopublican duopoly wants it, and the Commission on Presidential Debates -- the gatekeeper corporation set up by the two major parties in 1986 -- makes sure the duopoly gets its way.

For tomorrow, the CPD has settled on the same fellow who moderated the first debate in 2008, PBS' Jim Lehrer. Lehrer inadvertently provided one interesting moment last time, when he asked the candidates: "Are you willing to acknowledge, both of you, that this financial crisis is going to affect the way you rule the country as president of the United States?"

That was a cringe-worthy way to describe a constitutional officer for a free republic, yet very few people cringed. Neither Sen. McCain nor Sen. Obama objected to the idea that it's the president's job to "rule the country."

After all, by October 2008, it had become clear that whoever won would, as Yale Law professor Jack Balkin observed, "inherit more constitutional and legal power than any president in U.S. history." President Obama would go on to expand those powers still further, with a secret -- but apparently expansive -- interpretation of the Patriot Act and targeted killing of American citizens, among other innovations.

Gov. Romney doesn't present much of a contrast to Obama on the foundational issue of whether it's the president's job to "rule the country." Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, a former two-term governor of New Mexico, does. He's against targeted killing of Americans, he supports repeal of the Patriot Act and an end to the War on Drugs.

Johnson's on the ballot in some 47 states, and he's registered more than 5 percent support in a couple of national polls. But he's locked out of the debates.

It's "a rigged system designed entirely to protect and perpetuate the two-party duopoly," charges Johnson lieutenant Ron Nielson. Nielson is biased, of course, but he's not wrong. The major party organizations created the CPD -- its first co-chairs were the chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties -- in order to seize control of the debates from the independent League of Women Voters. The scam worked: The League pulled out in 1988, decrying "a fraud on the American voter."

The CPD set an enormously high bar to third-party participation, and its nominal independence protected the major parties from a public backlash. "We were able to hide behind the commission," and exclude Ross Perot from the 1996 debates, Scott Reed, Dole's campaign manager commented.

The Johnson campaign filed suit against the CPD two weeks ago. Irony of ironies, its claim invokes the Sherman Antitrust Act. Gov. Johnson's antitrust suit hasn't got a prayer, but he does have a point.

Why shouldn't the American people get at least one debate that includes third-party candidates? We needn't include the "Rent Is Too Damn High" guy -- though that would be interesting -- but why not make room for third parties with sufficient ballot access to have a chance at winning? (Jill Stein of the Green Party would also qualify, by that criteria).

Public pressure -- which has cost the CPD three sponsors in recent weeks -- may work where litigation fails. Make it interesting for once -- it would be healthier for our democracy and for our livers.

Examiner Columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of "The Cult of the Presidency."

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Gene Healy

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The Washington Examiner